HOT SPRINGS - If you haven’t spent a day at the races in a good long while, an afternoon at Oaklawn Park could leave you feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle. A lot has changed in the last 20 years.
Today’s ubiquitous virtual imagery has morphed Oaklawn into a den of TV screens and video monitors, where you can be part of a studio audience that hardly bothers to lay eyes on the horses themselves.
If the weather is at all wintry, you’ll have very little company at the rail to enjoy closeup sights and sounds of the thoroughbreds and their riders thundering down the home stretch.
Most everyone else will be indoors staying warm. Some will have their eyes on the track from reserved seating - although the best viewing for much of each race can be found on the large video screen at the center of the tote board.
You’ve probably come to Oaklawn, like most folks, eager to wager on the sport of kings. If so, plentiful temptations await - not only betting on the nine races here, with oodles of perfectas and other permutations, but also laying money remotely on races at other tracks beamed below the stands on big screens.
Along with various printed tip sheets, including handicapper Rick Lee’s picks in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, track announcer Frank Mirahmadi broadcasts his selections on the main video screen prior to each race.
Beckoning before or after the track is Oaklawn’s adjoining phalanx of slot machines and other games of chance. Although the windowless setting may look like a casino, don’t call it that, because casinos are against the law in Arkansas. Call it a “racino” instead.
But even if you’ve arrived as nonbetting types, like wife Marcia and I on our recent Oaklawn outing, there’s still enough going on here to make for a lively adventure.
We especially enjoyed visiting the paddock, below the stands near the track’s main entrance, to watch the horses being saddled and mounted.
From this vantage point, I was struck by how slender the thoroughbreds’ ankles are - perhaps one reason why leg injuries are such a hazard. Up close, the jockeys appear not only small but also physically fit as can be. The saddles look as compact and as near to weightless as possible.
Another diversion came from people-watching - particularly the full-throttle rooting as each race’s front-runners came galloping down the stretch. There was literal jumping up and down, evidence of how exciting it can be to have one’s hard-earned money at stake.
We were pleasantly surprised by Oaklawn’s concession-stand food, with one exception. That loser was the fried oysters ($9 with french fries) at the stand-up Oyster Bar: too much breading, too little oyster and distinctly less than-fresh flavor. By happy contrast, the raw oysters on the half-shell (four for $7.25)were large and succulent.
Marcia gave high marks to the track’s signature corned beef sandwich ($6). The Daily Double Deli heaped on enough juicy meat that there was plenty to share with me - after I’d devoured a New York-style hot dog ($4.50). The plump and tasty wiener was garnished with copious sauerkraut, chopped onions and sinus-clearing mustard.
In light of the afternoon hour, we stuck to soft drinks, even though the mixed drink prices of $4.75 to $5.50 seemed like a decent deal at the Derby Bar. Its menu also listed, for $1.25, aspirin, Tylenol and Tums. I figured that was a stab at gallows humor, but maybe not.
We left before the eighth race, thus sparing us the inevitable grumbling during the tearing up of all those losing tickets.
And since we kept our money in our pockets, there was no need to stop across Central Avenue at a strategically located business with a jolly name: Boll Weevil Pawn Shop.
Thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park, 2705 Central Ave., Hot Springs, takes place at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Sunday, as well as 1 p.m. Saturday through April 12. There will be holiday racing at 1 p.m. Monday. General admission is $2, with reserved seating an additional $2.50 Thursday-Friday, $4.50 Saturday-Sunday. Parking is $2.
Call (501) 623-4411 or visit oaklawn.com.
Weekend, Pages 38 on 02/13/2014
Print Headline: Even nonbettors have lots of fun at Oaklawn